A year ago this month, media critics were sharpening their obituaries for their media brethren, warning of an increasingly shifting landscape. But then Nov. 8, 2016 happened. Every journalist who was caught off guard tried to reckon with what they deemed a “post-fact world”—and the ones who weren’t surprised at the upset doubled down.
The election of Donald Trump launched a thousand think pieces about what the media got wrong, and a frenzy of newsroom strategy meetings to cover a president the likes of which they had ever seen. As the campaign’s volatile nature with the media continued, the public rejected news as unbiased, and reporters and news organizations who had tried to delve deep during the election doubled down and the forecasters who got it all so wrong started to shift their focus.
The first sign that this was going to be a White House covered unlike any other clearly began with the campaign, but reaffirmed itself even before the champagne flowed at the inauguration balls. The sparks between the media and Trump began flying just as investigations and questions into the president-elect’s business holdings began.
Fact checkers who had learned facts were negotiable in the campaign were in full-swing trying to correct statements that Trump won with the biggest electorate in history. Despite facts to the contrary, that didn’t stop Trump bragging about the statistic, and it was often repeated by his transition team as they fought off questions about Russia’s alleged intervention in the election. This immediate disregard for historical fact set the stage for the past year’s battle between the White House Press Corps and a White House media team and president who purport different facts when it suits their need, and labels anything to the contrary as “fake news.”
First, it began with a change in the briefing room where alternative media outlets, such as Infowars and other Sandy-Hook conspiracy theorists were given a voice over mainstream outlets such as CNN. The battles between then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer and people in the room continued, while the president lobbed his own version of the facts on Twitter.
Then came inauguration day—which proved another unsettling day for fact-checkers as the new Commander in Chief made claims about the size of his inauguration day crowd. While disregard for facts wasn’t new, a restriction on what public agencies could tell the media and Tweet was swiftly enforced. This led to leaks—reporters were desperate for information and officials working for the administration sought to get facts out.
More press secretaries have traveled through the briefing room— each having a strenuous relationship with the media in the White House. But the newsrooms have pushed back—commentators selling the administration’s talking points have gotten pushback, and some like KellyAnne Conway have even been uninvited from shows. The president has tried to blacklist media organizations and is facing a lawsuit after blocking people from seeing his tweets.
A year after the election, the media hasn’t frosted over and backed down as expected. Washington bureaus that were previously anemic have staffed up and thawed out, and they have put reporters doing the best investigative reporting on beats dedicated to the ongoings of the office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As the revolving door of staff at the White House swivels forward, so has the news media made substitutions of their own.
Though the media has been on guard and adversarial to the president, they haven’t been without looking at their own problems. After the Trump’s campaign win, many media organizations around the country rallied together to support real news (from national marketing campaigns launched by the News Media Alliance to local ones, such as the “Why Newspapers?” campaign from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association). As journalists look back at this turbulent year, they also sought to create a roadmap for what to do next.
Podcasts by the People
While the president has often tried to make decree in 140-character limit, not all politicians feel restricted to do the same. Seeking a longer outlet, former District Attorney Preet Bharara has started a podcast, hosted by WNYC and Pineapple Media.
In the year since the election, typical podcast formats hosted by radio personalities, featuring journalists interviewing journalists are still at the top of the charts, but they’ve had to make room for the professionals. Podcasts like “Pod Save the People” featuring former staffers of President Barack Obama and Bharara’s podcast have made their way to the top of the charts.
In ads for Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned With Preet,” the attorney introduces himself as the man fired by Trump, who’s now on the sidelines and trying to bring people to the podcast who are in the “room” where it happens—to borrow a line from “Hamilton.”
“I just think we’re living in an unprecedented moment. There’s no context for this—there are all these norms that are breaking down, and I think (Preet) is one of the very few people who can provide context to that, and is willing to do so publicly,” said Pineapple Media co-founder Max Linsky. Pineapple Media has hosted shows like the serially interesting and controversial, “Missing Richard Simmons,” and Linsky himself co-hosted a podcast with Hillary Clinton last year.
But Linsky doesn’t see Bharara’s podcast as a way of circumventing the traditional media routes, but more like a complementary add-on.
“I think it’s the same thing we’re seeing in media all over the place—which is Preet is able to have this podcast, it allows him to do what he wants, to have the conversations he wants on his own platform and on his own terms,” Linsky said. “Certainly the guy has some interesting conversations to be had, and the success that the show had had early on shows the interest people have…it’s evidence that he can find an audience without having to go through traditional media channels, but it’s not like he’s doing it out of his basement.”
But a barrier for low entry doesn’t mean the payoff has to be low, too. This new media has taken a page out of the “old” media’s notes and delved into the world of subscribers. “El Chapo Traphouse” is a podcast who has fans like Green Greenwald, featuring activists with massive Twitter followings, reporters with deep dives into information, and it makes nearly $85,000 a month, according to host Patreon.
There are podcasts hosted by media stalwarts like WNYC, and then there’s a new business model being tested out—all banking that people will pay for the news they want to hear.
It used to take a record-breaking filibuster or a scandal to get this much coverage of town halls. But following an election where one part of the electorate feels heard and the other feels ignored, coverage of vitriolic town hall meetings—or a lack thereof, has paved the way for local journalists who were long-suffering town hall coverers anyway, to pick up the torch. While local reporters have oft-groaned that local elections are just as important, if not more so, than the national ones, issues like healthcare, gun control and immigration reform have created a groundswell of voices clamoring to be heard by their locally elected official.
While the national outlets are following the president’s tweet of the day, local journalists should be seeing how what he says and does affects the regular people, said Quinnipiac University’s director of graduate journalism Richard Hanley.
“They should be sticking to local areas and finding out how people in local areas, in their neighborhoods are feeling and thinking about things as the reality of this administration’s policies sink in and are made actionable in terms of reality—not an emotional interpretation—but reality,” he said.
Referring to cuts to cancer research and other budgetary measures, Hanley said “The job of the local reporters is to ask how is this going to affect your local hospital? How is this going to affect people in your neighborhood suffering from cancer? Local reporters have a lot to do.”
Long gone are the days of reporters playing nicely in the press room. Both the administration and the media have an image to maintain, and those images are in direct opposition with each other. Instances like the White House Correspondents Dinner where the show went on, even without its usual presidential guest showed the conversations will keep happening whether the White House plays or not.
An administration that ran on painting the media as dishonest, and a media trying to earn back the trust of the public will not pretend to be friends anytime soon.
“The tensions have risen on both sides, and it’s by design,” Hanley said. “The whole point of the Trump administration is to appear combative—that’s what the people voted for. They voted for someone who spoke for them and was combative, so it’s no surprise that the briefing room has turned into a boxing match.”
The press, on the other side of the ring, are fighting to earn the trust of their audiences, and showing they don’t play ball with people who are above facts.
“They’re shouting at each other. There’s certainly a lot of sparring—and I don’t know if that’s good for anybody,” Hanley said.
But what’s lost in all the combativeness, tweet-following and fake-news arguments? Facts.
In previous elections, websites that stood alone fact-checking statements made in campaigns or on the trail became the new hot thing in journalism—a new add on, a new partnership. Fact checking was the thing, until we had a president in office who could make half the electorate doubt facts with a single tweet. With that went reporters following the tweets, and the trust in facts with it. What good is a website that fact checks what the president has to say if the people who needed to know that information don’t trust the source anyway?
That isn’t to say that people don’t want to know the truth. A recent Pew Research Center study found trust in the government is an all-time lows: 20 percent say they trust the government to do what’s right always or most of the time.
While a majority of Americans say they are frustrated with their government, there is a time to do reporting that isn’t just a quick fact check, but instead a deep dive into an issue and its impacts. While a quick fact check may make it easy to post as a Facebook response in a thread of arguments, fewer and fewer people’s minds are being changed by a website that purports to tell them what to believe about the truthfulness of what their president says.
Jennifer Swift is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of D.C. Witness, a website that tracks every homicide in Washington. Prior to moving to D.C., Jennifer worked for Connecticut magazine as their state politics reporter, and covered multiple topics at the New Haven Register including city hall, education and police.